The Incomparable Rose O'Neill
Rose O’Neill was a suffragette of renowned beauty and a self-taught artist. At a young age, Rose gained notoriety illustrating popular books and magazines of her time. Before long, Rose was the highest paid, and youngest, women in the business. But she is not known well for this. Her most famed accomplishment is her invention of the beloved Kewpie Doll.
On June 25, 1874, Rose Cecil O’Neill was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her father was William Patrick Henry. Her mother was Alice Cecilia Asenath Senia Smith O’Neill, but everyone called her “Meemie.” She had two sisters named Lee and Callista, and three brothers called Hugh, James, and Clarence.
Rose descended from a long line of art lovers of all types; her father sold books, and her mother was a gifted musician, actress, and teacher. In her youth, Rose traveled with her family by wagon to rural Nebraska, where she spent her formative years. Her family supported one another fiercely in their artistic endeavors.
Rose was something of a prodigy. She entered and won a drawing contest for the Omaha World-Herald when she was thirteen. Rose left Nebraska for Manhattan at the tender age of 19 and sold her first novel, The Loves of Edwy. But the publishers were most interested in the portfolio of illustrations she showed them.
Before long, Rose received commissions for her drawings, and her career as a professional illustrator gained fast momentum. Her artwork appeared in popular magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Home Companion. Rose also drew short comics for Puck Magazine, a humorous publication.
Rose was garnering attention, fame, and money in New York. Her family decided to move from Nebraska to Missouri where they lived on a homestead in the Ozarks of Taney County, Missouri. Rose was enchanted with the mountains, woods, and streams at the farm, and christened the place “Bonniebrook.”
Rose married her long-time pen pal, Gray Latham, in 1896. At first, the marriage appeared mutually advantageous. Gray hit it off with the O’Neill family and even moved in with them at Bonniebrook for a while. At the time, Rose was the sole provider for her family in the Ozarks.
Rose discovered that Gray was intercepting her paychecks and spending all of her money on himself. Rose filed for divorce in 1901, and Gray died in 1907.
While Rose awaited divorce from Gray, she started receiving anonymous love letters. Her secret admirer revealed himself to be Mr. Harry Leon Wilson, an editor at Puck. The two were married in 1902. Unfortunately, they were unequally yolked as far as temperament was concerned. Rose was lively and upbeat, whereas Harry was often depressed and sad. The two divorced, and Rose never married again or had any children, aside from the Kewpies.
Kewpies are quaint little babies, part cherub and part elf, named for the Roman God, Cupid. They are known by their top-knot head, starfish hands, watermelon-shaped smile, and side glancing eyes. In the illustrations, Kewpies solved problems using wit, whimsy, and mischief. Rose explains them as “a sort of little round fairy whose one idea is to teach people to be merry and kind at the same time.”
Bonniebrook served as a muse for Rose, and where she claims the Kewpies came to her in a dream dangling from her bedclothes and wreaking adorable havoc. During Christmas of 1909, Rose published her Kewpies in a women’s magazine to the delight and awe of the American public. They were an instant sensation.
Rose Patented the Kewpie Doll in 1913, and renowned German doll maker J.D. Kestner produced them. Kestner made small bisque dolls and sent Rose a few. Unhappy with the dolls, Rose went to Germany and had the molds destroyed. She felt they didn’t look anything like her vision.
She worked with a teenaged art student to create perfect molds ranging from 1 to 12 inches high. The Kewpies had a heart-shaped sticker applied to their chests, and Rose signed the foot of many of these originals. Even today, a signed Kestner Kewpie is much sought after by collectors.
Rose was the wealthiest female illustrator in the United States by 1914. Her financial successes enabled her to support her family at Bonniebrook while she traveled through Europe.
Rose fit in perfectly with the bohemian artists and writers in Europe. She attended and hosted parties where she rubbed elbows with the best. She studied under contemporary masters, including Auguste Rodin.
Rose’s art took a drastically dark turn in Europe. Rose called these works her “Sweet Monster” art. She drew grotesque mythical beings, contorted into delicate poses that seemed to defy their beastly nature. The works were both revolting and endearing.
While some embraced her fine art, others criticized. Rose said this of her critics, “There are some people who have found some of my pictures revolting. They hurt the eye. But I am not dejected like Poe. I am in love with magic and monsters and the drama of form emerging from the formless.”
Rose often drew her illustrations from her home at Bonniebrook, because the offices of the New York publications that hired her had no women’s bathroom. By then, the Kewpies netted over 1.4 million dollars, approximately $35 million in today’s money. Rose realized she could use Kiewpies to advocate for her greatest passion: voting rights for women.
In 1914, a plane flew over a fair in Nashville, piloted by aviation pioneer Katherine Stinson. As the crowd below watched, Katherine unleashed a shower of small celluloid kewpie dolls to the ground below suspended from tiny yellow parachutes. Each of them wore a sash bearing a women’s rights slogan.
Her illustrations began to take a political turn also. Kewpies now had a cause and often bore inscriptions like “Votes For Our Mothers!” Some complained that Rose shouldn’t drag the Kewpies into this. Rose didn’t care. She had an apartment in Greenwich Village. Rose would hang a banner across her apartment window in support of the women’s rights movement. She attended protests and marches with her sister Callista. Rose worked hard for the suffragette movement. In 1920, women gained the right to vote.
By the 1930s, Rose spent most of her money supporting her family and friends. Kewpies fell out of fashion, and the Great Depression hit the O’Neill’s hard. In 1937, Rose went quietly into retirement at her beloved Bonniebrook home. She wrote her memoirs with biographer Vance Randolph. Rose died of heart failure, resulting from paralysis on April 6, 1944. She is buried with her family at Bonniebrook. Her memoir was published posthumously. She wrote: